19 March 2019

Nature as the Devil's Playground



The Ravine
Kendal Young [pseud Phyllis Brett Young]
London: W.H. Allen, 1962
208 pages

Young Barbara Grey "saved for simply ages" to buy a silver bracelet for her mother's birthday. Now that that the day has arrived, she can barely contain her excitement. She manages to make it through her after-school art class, but can't wait for the teacher, Miss Warner, to drive her home. And so, Barbara heads off, cutting through the ravine.

Miss Warner – Christian name: Julie – notes Barbara's absence and ties to be brave. She rounds up her other students, piles them into her station wagon, and drives down into the ravine. It is a dark and rainy, mud makes the tires spin, yet Julie Warner presses on, dreading what she might find.

The car hits a particularly bad patch, spins out of control, and shines its headlights on a man resembling the devil standing over what looks to be a vast pool of blood. The figure disappears into the darkness. The pool of blood turns out to be Barbara's red raincoat... which covers her dead body.

Oh, Barbara, why did you go into the ravine? Not six months earlier, Deborah Hurst – then a student at your very school – was assaulted in the ravine. She hasn't been the same since, and now spends her afternoons waking blank-faced through the streets of your town.

Julie is devastated, of course, but what makes it particularly hard on her is that she has – or had – a little sister who disappeared from the luxurious lobby of the Warner family's Manhattan apartment building. The missing girl was on her way to a violin lesson.

The art teacher comes from a very different place than Barbara and Deborah. Her station wagon replaced a convertible. She works, though she doesn't have to. She has a flat above a drug store, though she can afford better digs. She doesn't have to live here.

But where is here?

Because of title, The Ravine, and the knowledge that it was written by a Torontonian (whose best-known work is The Torontonians), I began this novel thinking it was set in Toronto.

It is not.

The Ravine takes place somewhere in New England. The setting is referred to as a "town," though it appears to be a much larger municipality. There are two daily newspapers, a "foreign" quarter, and downtown streets that are unfamiliar to the art teacher. And yet, the community is so small that everyone knows everyone else; Julie, being relatively new, is the exception.

She's brought into contact with several people as a result of poor Barbara's murder. There's Dr Greg Markham, who treated Deborah Hurst, and has been following her movements ever since. Tom Denning is a newspaper editor, whose chief concern is circulation. Captain Velyan, head of the police, is doing his best to deal with crimes of a sort that just don't happen in a town like this.

Of these three men, Greg is the most important. Struck by Julie's testimony at the coroner's inquiry into Barbara's death, he trails her to a filthy café in which she has taken refuge from reporters. He asks her to dinner that evening. By the end of the date, during which they share one brief kiss, they've become an item.

Julie runs around behind her new boyfriend's back in enlisting Denning and Velyan to entrap the devilish man. Meanwhile, Greg puts together a plan of his own, which he keeps from Julie. Neither action bodes well for a long-term relationship.

The educated, lithe, artsy, blonde, daughter of wealth, Julie is a type; she's as familiar as Dunning, the alcoholic newspaperman, and Velyan, the out-of-his-depths police captain. Dedicated doctor Greg is also a type, though I'd argue that his day has passed. From their very first meeting he looks to exert control over Julie's life:
"Your trouble is that you think too much about other people, Julie. You need someone who will put you first. Do I do that with your permission, or without it?"
The afternoon newspaper is anxiously awaited, a hospital switchboard operator causes concern, meals are taken in drug stores, and cigarettes are offered all around. This is a novel of another time, and nowhere is is more evident in its depiction of the ravine itself.
At midnight on that Thursday night, the ravine was as dark and silent as the valley of death itself. Its thick, black canopy of branches was as motionless as the windless darkness, as secretive as the deep earth trough it shielded.
     Unseen, soundless, the sullen pools in the depths of the ravine swelled and spread, bloated by rivulets of rain-water which slithered inexorably down its steep sides: which crept around the holes of the trees; which filtered noiselessly through the lesser resistance of undergrowth obscene with funguses which had ever seen the light of day.
     Shunned even by the owls, it knew no movement other than this dreary invasion of last minute streams which it would eventually absorb with slow reluctance. A reluctance not duplicated by the morbid eagerness with which it took the night into itself and became one with it.
     Severed, as if by a will of its own, from all but the powers of darkness, it seemed to brood with deliberate malice upon the evil secrets it guarded: seemed to reveal in a black, inanimate triumph belonging only to itself.
     Brooding over a dark past, savouring the taste and smell of recent death, the trees and bushes which were its real substance became linked one to another in a tangled threat as ugly as it was positive.
More fully realized than the encircling town, the ravine is seen by a great many in the community as "a tangled, cancerous growth." It is an evil place. The reader is told there are those who want it left alone, but none of them feature as characters.

After Deborah's assault, Denning's paper launched its "Abolish the Ravine" campaign, painting a picture of a changed landscape with roads, scattered shade trees, and "artificial drainage." It calls for light standards "as unobstructed as the moon and stars above." The campaign was a success in that circulation increased. Barbara's murder provided a second boost.

The novel's brief denouement, which takes place the month after Barbara's murder, features a passage in which the first snows begin to fall, "clean, white, and beneficent, gently covering the acres of raw stumps which are all that remained of the ravine."

For this reader, it was an unhappy ending.


Trivia: The dust jacket features an advert for other W.H. Allen titles, including Psyche, Phyllis Brett Young's first novel:
Kendal Young is the pseudonym of Phyllis Brett Young whose latest novel will be one of 1962's major films. It is the fascinating story of what happens to a young girl after she has been kidnapped.
I'm sorry, which novel will be one of 1962's major films?

The reference is to The RavinePsyche is the story of the kidnapped girl.

The Ravine was not a major film of 1962 or any other year, though an adaptation was shot and released nine years later under the title Assault. It is not to be confused with the 1971 gay porn film of the same title.


Must say, of the six novels W.H. Allen advertised on the dust jacket, the one that most intrigues is Touch a French Pom-Pom, with its promised probing of "the curious situation of four people with the same peculiar desire."

Object: A compact hardcover made of red boards. My copy was purchased for five American dollars (with a further twenty for shipping) from a dishonest New Zealand bookseller. Described as "Ex library used copy with wear and tear but overall clean square copy," the thing came apart in my hands.


Access: As far as I can tell, the W.H. Allen edition enjoyed just one printing. Pan published the first paperback edition in 1964, followed by a 1971 movie tie-in as Assault.

A German translation, Mein Mörder kommt um 8, was published in 1966.

The Ravine is held by Library and Archives Canada and McMaster University.

That's it!

Copies of the The Ravine is surprisingly uncommon. The Ravine was published in Canada by Longmans, yet there is no evidence of its existence online. I know of it thanks to Amy Lavender Harris, who owns a signed copy. As of this writing, there are no copies of the Allen and Pan editions listed for anywhere. Two copies of Assault are currently listed for sale online at £2.50 and £3.50. Get 'em before their gone. Like the Longmans, this edition isn't recognized by WorldCat.

04 March 2019

Miss Fenwick's Good Old Hockey Match



More than a fortnight has passed since my last post, but I haven't been lazy. It's been a hectic time, centred around our third move in seven months. To think that we lived over a decade in our last home. Our new house is much smaller, but an addition is planned. Right now, bookcases are the priority.

During all this activity, I somehow managed a couple of pieces for next issue of Canadian Notes & Queries. The longer of the two concerns Canada Reads, CBC Books' "literary Survivor" (their words, not mine). The shorter is a review The Arch-Satirist, a 1910 novel by elocutionist Frances de Wolfe Fenwick. I wish I could say that I liked the novel. Set in fin de siècle Montreal, it begins with great promise by introducing a degenerate, drug-laden teenage poet, only to shift focus to Lynn Thayer, another of those self-sacrificing female characters that are all too common in early Canadian literature.

The Canadian Bookman, July 1910
Still, the novel managed to hold my interest; in part, because of its cynical depiction of Montreal Society (Miss Fenwick was a member). It's not much of a stretch to conclude that scenes involving the Golden Square Mile set were inspired by actual events, particularly given the fact the author's second novel, A Soul on Fire (1915), features a character so clearly modelled on Sir Andrew Macphail.


Perhaps the greatest value in The Arch-Satirist comes in its depiction of a late-nineteenth-century "hockey match." I've never seen this novel referenced in histories of the sport, and so encourage chroniclers of the early game – Stephen Harper is one – to follow this link., which leads to a six-page description of the match and the building in which it was played.


Read "Caruso" for "Calvé."

Constructed in 1898, the Montreal Arena stood at the corner of St Catherine and Wood, and is thought to have been the first building designed specifically for hockey. The match described by Miss Fenwick is played between the Wales and the Conquerers – likely the Wanderers and the Canadiens, both of which called the Arena home.

I'll leave with these remarks made by Estelle Hadwell, Lynn Thayer's closest friend. Those who don't much care for hockey will appreciate:
I do love to be fin-de-siecle,'' she had said. "But, when it comes to hockey or pug dogs — well, I simply can't, that's all.'' Then she had told a plaintive tale of how, when a girl, she had been taken to a hockey match. Her escort had been an enthusiast of the most virulent type; and she had been obliged to feign a joy which she by no means felt.
     "It was ghastly," she observed, ghastly. "There I sat, huddled in grandmother's seal-skin which wasn't a bit becoming, and watched a lot of weird things dressed like circus clowns knocking a bit of rubber round a slippery rink. And all those poor misguided beings who had paid two, three and five dollars to see them do it yelled like mad whenever the rubber got taken down a little faster than usual — oh, you may laugh! but I can tell you that when one of those silly men whacked another silly man over the head when the umpire wasn't looking because the second ass had hit that absurd bit of rubber oftener than he, the first ass, had — why, I felt sorry to think that the human species to which I belonged was so devoid of sense.
Fun fact: "1 Wood," the building that now stands on site of the old Montreal Arena, was designed by my father's friend Ray Afleck, the man who also designed the Beaconsfield house in which I was raised.

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17 February 2019

Wilfrid Laurier: 100 Years



The great Wilfrid Laurier died one hundred years ago today. Our seventh prime minister, he held the office for more than fifteen consecutive years. Laurier led his party for over three decades, and served in the House of Commons for 44 years, 10 months and 17 days until February 17, 1919 brought all that to an end. At age seventy-seven, his death shouldn't have come as a shock, but contemporary press suggests otherwise. Tribute was paid by George V, but my favourite comes from a commoner who remembered the widow Laurier. It was published in Right Honourable Sir Wilfrid Laurier: A Tribute (Ottawa: Modern Press, 1919).


WILFRID LAURIER

Elegy Written on the Day of Sir Wilfrid Laurier's Death
by Mr. T.A. Brown, Ottawa
     He'll pass no more, nor shall we backward glance
          To note again that loved, commanding form,
     Like some fine figure of chivalrous France
          Round which men rallied in old times of storm. 
     A Bayard, ever gallant in the fray;
          Lute voiced, a man of magic utterance rare,
     What was the spell, the secret of his sway—
          The noble life, the silver of his hair? 
     Unaging and majestic as the pine,
          The evergreen of youth within his soul,
     Tilting young-hearted with that soul ashine,
          He onward bore unto his purposed goal. 
     With her he loved through shadowed hours and gay.
          In rare companionship the sunset road
     He walked in such felicity; the way
          Seemed rose hung, and the years a lightsome load. 
     With malice unto none, e'en in defeat;
          With charity in triumph, he has stood,
     Broad gauge Canadian, after battle's heat,
          Speaking the language of wide brotherhood. 
     The inspiration of his service yet.
          The charity, the brotherhood he taught,
     Shall light our pathway though his sun be set,
          And may we build as nobly as he wrought. 
     New tasks begin, new duties, new resolves,
          For Canada, his land and ours, we take;
     And since such partings come as time evolves,
          His spirit watching, we new pledges make. 
     Though mute his lips, the seal of death thereon,
          While men remember how he loved this land,
     His voice will sound a trumpet leading on—
          Great Heart, adieu—bowed at thy bier we stand. 
*   *   * 
     Dear Lady, in the sadness of this hour
          For him we honor as our noblest son,
     If our affection and our love had power
          To save thee grief, we'd bear it, everyone.




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04 February 2019

Margaret Millar Simplified and Spoiled



The Listening Walls
Margaret Millar [abridged by George McMillin]
New York: Falcon, 1975


The Listening Walls
Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2016

I'm a great fan of Syndicate Books' seven-volume Collected Millar. Not only did it return all twenty-five of the author's novels to print – most unavailable for decades – it did so in attractive volumes and at affordable prices. The only criticism I have seems to be shared by pretty much everyone familiar with the set: the print is too darn small. My middle-aged eyes can manage, but given the choice I'll reach for an old mass-market paperback any day. This is why I was quick to splurge 25 cents on a Falcon edition of The Listening Walls spotted at a charity shop last month. In my haste, I didn't notice this small print on the cover:


There's irony for you. Or is it? Alanis Morissette has still got me confused.

Edited and abridged "for young people and adults who want to read books of mature content with greater ease and enjoyment," Falcon Books meant nothing to me. Interior copy informs that they were "especially recommended as supplemental readers in junior and senior high school courses;" happily, they weren't used in mine. If my 25¢ copy of The Listening Walls is anything to go by, the abridgements stripped much of what made their originals worth reading. Consider the opening paragraph to Margaret Millar's The Listening Walls:
From her resting place in the broom closet Consuela could hear the two American ladies in 404 arguing. The closet was as narrow as the road to heaven and smelled of furniture polish, chlorine, and of Consuela herself. But it was not physical discomfort that disturbed her siesta, it was the strain of trying to understand what the Americans were arguing about. Money? Love? What else was there, Consuela wondered, and wiped the sweat off her forehead and neck with one of the towels she was supposed to place in the bathrooms at exactly six o'clock.
Now, here is the Falcon abridged version:
From the broom closet, Consuela could hear the two American ladies arguing in Room 404. The closet was small and smelled of furniture polish and cleaning fluid, and of Consuela's own body. But it was not the tiny closet and its smells that disturbed her siesta – her afternoon nap. It was the argument she was hearing through the wall. She strained to hear what the Americans were arguing about. Was it money? Was it love? What else could it be? Console wondered about it and wiped the sweat off her forehead and neck with one of the clean towels she was supposed to put in the bathrooms.
Things are spelled out – "404" becomes "Room 404," "chlorine" becomes "cleaning fluid"  – and subtleties are missed. What spoils
 Consuela's siesta (not necessarily an "afternoon nap," says my OED) is not the sound of the two American ladies arguing, but that she can't quite make out what they are saying. Gone is the description of the closet, Consuela's "resting place," as being "as narrow as the road to heaven," and with it the first hint of her religious beliefs and their influence on the plot.

The two American ladies are friends Wilma Wyatt and Amy Kellogg. The pair have travelled from San Francisco to Mexico City on a girls' getaway. Poor Wilma has been having a particularly tough year that has included divorce (her second), the loss of both parents in a plane crash, and a bout of pneumonia. It's now September. Can it get much worse?

Yes, it can.

Wilma is unhappy with everything – herself most of all – and is itching to bicker and bully. Amy tries to make the best of it, all the while reminding herself that husband Rupert had warned the trip was a mistake. Gill, Amy's big brother, called her an imbecile. Things deteriorate further when Amy discovers that Wilma bought a handcrafted silver box engraved with Rupert's initials. Why would Wilma do that? And why would she hide the purchase? The fighting escalates and Wilma storms off to the hotel bar.

That evening, Wilma dies of a fall from their hotel room balcony.


The Listening Walls has less to do with Wilma's death, and whether or not it was murder, than it does the mystery of Amy's subsequent disappearance. Rupert gives Gill a letter from Amy in which she writes of her need to be alone for a while. Gill, who had already found things were "damned peculiar," hires a private detective, and Rupert starts making mistakes.

The Listening Walls shares The Master at Her Zenith, the third volume of the Collected Millar, with Vanish in an Instant, Wives and Lovers, Beast in View, and An Air That Kills. By far the weakest novel of the lot, its flaw lies with the nineteenth and penultimate chapter, in which one character explains his actions throughout the previous eighteen. Amounting to several dense pages – uncharacteristic of Millar – it reads like an information dump. This same scene in the abridgement is less irritating in that there is less to explain. The keen-eyed will have noticed that the Falcon opening paragraph quoted above is actually longer that the original; so, how did abridger George McMillin make the novel shorter? The answer is that he slashed dialogue to the bone, and cut entire scenes. In order to bridge the gaps, McMillin added some passages of his own. In fact, the passage quoted on the back cover entirely his own work:


I've hidden the first character's name because it misleads. The character is not a murderer and would never think to murder. The passage is just another example of McMillin's misunderstanding of the novel.

Much has been made of the novel's ending, beginning with the dust jacket on Gollancz's first UK edition:


Sort of spoils things, doesn't it?

Julian Symons liked the ending, as did I. Had it not been for publisher hype, I expect Anthony Lejeune would've liked it, too. Reviewing the novel in 1959 for the Times Literary Supplement, he writes:
Miss Millar knows how to make her story-line twist like a snake. It is not her fault that the publishers, in big letters on the jacket, promise "as smashing a last sentence as we can recall!" That promise is not fulfilled. The final twist is surprisingly unsurprising.
More recently, Jon Breen wrote in the 18 April 2005 Weekly Standard: "Millar brings off a trick that is rarely attempted and even more rarely accomplished: withholding the final surprise to the very last line of the novel."

Foreknowledge that the final line brings surprise ruins the ending... and I've done so here. Apologies.

George McMillin liked the last sentence enough to leave it untouched.

At four words, it could hardly be shorter.

Trivia: For a "textbook" publisher – their description, not mine – Falcon proved itself particularly inept. The author biography is incorrect in describing Millar's It's All in the Family as a mystery. Students are told that her husband is "known professionally as Ross MacDonald," and not Ross Macdonald.


Objects: A study in contrasts. The Falcon is a slim mass-market paperback numbering 141 pages; the Syndicate is a bulky trade format paperback of 560 pages. The latter includes an introduction by Ross Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan.

My Falcon copy was once the property of the Smiths Falls District Collegiate Institute.


Access: The Listening Walls was first published in 1959 by Random House in the United States and Gollacz in the United Kingdom. Editions by Corgi (1961), Dell (1964 & 1967), Orion (1974), and International Polygonics (1986) followed. In 1980, Curley published a large print edition.


Used copies listed online range in price from US$1.60 (International Polygonics) to US$349.26 (Curley). At US$50.00, the copy to buy is a Random House first edition (with review slip) offered by a Florida bookseller.


The novel has enjoyed at least eleven translations: French (Les Murs écoutent), Spanish (Las paredes oyen), Danish (De lyttende vægge), Finnish (Seinillä on korvat), Swedish (De lyssnande väggarna), Norwegian (Piken som lyttet), German (Die lauschenden Wände), Italian (La scatola d'argento), Polish (Śmierć w hotelu), Japanese (耳をすます壁), and Korean (엿듣는 벽).

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30 January 2019

Sam Steele: Himself Not God



Major General Sir Samuel Benfield Steele KCMG CB MVO died one hundred years ago today. A man of great accomplishment, Steele's Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry begins by describing him as a "NWMP officer and army officer," then goes on to detail so much more, including his service in the Second Boar War and the Great War. In our family, Steele is remembered for his interactions with Edward Stewart Busby, my great-grandfather, who served as a customs inspector during the Yukon Gold Rush. A younger man, E.S. lived to see Louis St Laurent become prime minister, while Sam Steele fell victim to the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Much of what I know about Sam Steele comes from his unreliable 1914 memoir Forty Years in Canada, which I once helped usher back to print. Until now, I've ignored his verse – there was at least one poem – and so am taking advantage of this sad anniversary to present this, which Steele wrote in 1915, during the dark days of the Great War:

MYSELF NOT GOD
               "When Greek meets Greek" the battle's fair;
               Kaiser and I: gods! what a pair:
               For weapons we will choose — Hot Air,
                                     I need no God. 
               Bill may be there with shot and shell,
               His arms first may fair quite well,
               But, people, I can talk like Hell:
                                     I can by God. 
               That God created sun and rain
               In seven days, is told in vain,
               It took six weeks for me to train
                                    My men — by God. 
               At my command my men arise,
               Parade past me with right turned eyes,
               These warriors — mark you — symbolize
                                   Myself — not God. 
               When in Valcartier's latter days,
               My Troops assembled 'neath my gaze
               Thy merged each creed in one to praise
                                  Myself — not God. 
               In language of poetic flow
               I'll write my epitaph, you know,
               (That's if I condescend to go
                                 Beneath the sod)
               My tombstone will need a P.T.O.
                                 So help me God.